Atheists’ Billboards in NJ, NY, Pennsylvania Stir Debate

Carolyn Weaver

The message, in English and Arabic, is blunt. “You know it’s a myth. You have a choice,” declares the billboard in a Muslim community in Paterson, New Jersey. An identical one, with a Hebrew translation, was erected in Brooklyn, New York. Both were installed by American Atheists, a private organization with 4,000 members, to publicize its upcoming national convention in Washington.

David Silverman, president of the group, said the billboards are meant to reach secret nonbelievers in Muslim and conservative Jewish communities. He said those communities repress the nonbelievers among them.

“These billboards are here to tell them they are not alone,” he said in Paterson, New Jersey, recently. “To give the message that people do have a choice, that even if their friends and family are all of the same religious beliefs, and are all part of their insular communities, they still have a choice. There’s nothing forcing them to live the life of a lie.”

Silverman calls atheists the “most hated minority” in America. He debated the point on the street with Mohammed Qatanani, the Imam of a nearby mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County.

“I think it is a kind of not-acceptance, a kind of converting people,” the Imam said. “You want to convert people that God is a myth, but God is not a myth.”

Silverman said that was not the case. “I don’t think I’m trying to convert anybody,” he said. “I’m trying to talk to people who already know it’s a myth. I’m not going to convert anybody with a billboard. Does this billboard shake your faith?"

Imam Qatanani said that there is no compulsion in Islam, that it can only be freely chosen. He said that many Muslim scholars now believe that punishment for Muslims who leave the religion cannot be justified, and that there is no such requirement in the Quran.

The billboard in New York was originally set to be installed atop a building in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. But local residents objected, and the sign was moved to an expressway, where it is mainly visible to people in passing cars.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a heavily Christian community, a different billboard caused an outcry, with its graphic image of a black man in chains suggesting that the Bible endorsed slavery.

To some, the image was racist. But officials with the state chapter of American Atheists, which paid for the message, said it was to protest the state legislature's declaration of 2012 as the “Year of the Bible.”

In Paterson, Qatanani told Silverman that the billboard could serve Islam, by creating opportunities to talk with nonbelievers.

He said that his religion calls on him to share it with others, because it is “the best thing in our life. The gift that we have is religion. I like it to be for everybody, not just me,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to accept each other.”

“So, you know for a fact I’m never going to convert to Islam, never. Can we still be friends?” Silverman asked.

“Absolutely,” Qatanani answered, handing him a copy of the Quran and a pamphlet about Islam. “But I will give you this to convert you. Please, read them and come back.”

The atheist and the Imam laughed and shook hands.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: N.
March 29, 2012 12:44 PM
I dont think that orthodox religous communities should be allowed such an outrage when someone questions their beliefs.. after all everyone is allowed to question science, right?

by: fy
March 19, 2012 7:35 PM
Atheism will not generate crime.

by: Justin Timberlake
March 15, 2012 12:25 PM
Very bold statement in the conservative America. it is was in southern states it could have been different story.

by: NVO
March 15, 2012 6:37 AM
To espouse atheism, is to say you have have searched the far corners of the universe to prove there is no God, this is humanly IMPOSSIBLE. On the other hand faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ= Romans 10:17. Prepare to meet YOUR God=Amos 4:12 AND THAT INCLUDES YOU SO-CALLED ATHEISTS!

by: Cha Cha Cohen
March 15, 2012 6:12 AM
Atheism only breeds crime!

by: Robert Makoi
March 14, 2012 7:43 PM
To Mr. Nabi (Afghanistan, USA Finland); if there is no quranic support for forcing islam on others, why do muslims kill infidels? Islam in my opinion is NOT a religion of tolerance, ask Salmon Rusdie!

by: Jilly
March 13, 2012 4:07 PM
I think the billboards are GREAT!! It's a shame when theists are able to put up their billboards in any location and it not make the news, but a non-believer has one put up and it's all of a sudden "offensive"....
What a classic, hypocritical statement by theists.....

by: Nabi
March 13, 2012 11:46 AM
i must say i see and agree to both the points from the atheists and from the imam. islam does not force you to come or stay in a religion. there is no quranic support for that and for something so important in human life i would think the quran itself would be clear about it. second the atheists are right to liberate those who really do not believe, in their religion or even atheism but are there cause of 'family' reasons where they really rather be jew, christian, muslim or other.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs